Even if you haven’t read A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, you’ve probably heard the name Tyrion Lannister thrown around a bit. Tyrion is, dare I say it, one of the most memorable, compelling characters in current epic fantasy. In fact, he is so compelling that I’ve had to make a stipulation on my Special Needs in Strange Worlds guest posts: Please do not talk about Tyrion Lannister. He is a fantastic character, but if I let everyone talk about him, that’s the only person anyone will ever talk about. (Full disclosure: I have also had to make that rule about Miles Vorkosigan, but I haven’t read those books yet so I’m not really qualified to talk about him.)
Speculative Fiction is a genre that has a tendency to overcompensate for disabilities. Some common examples are the blind person who is also a seer. There’s the guy with an injured leg that just happens to have superhuman strength or an abnormal level of loyalty; and the character everyone thinks is insane but actually sees the truth of all things. These are just a few of the common tropes dealing with disability that I run across frequently in my books. While I understand the need for authors to have an “in” regarding some of these abilities, or give their readers a reason for them to exist, it often makes me wonder if these disabilities even matter in the grander scope, as they are so overshadowed by the character’s incredible, implausible abilities.
Heartwarming. Yes. Empowering? Yes. It’s wonderful to see characters that lack in one area become so overwhelmingly powerful and important in others. However, this also shows why Tyrion Lannister matters.
Tyrion Lannister doesn’t fit any common disability tropes. Instead, he’s short just because he is, and he’s intelligent because he’s worked incredibly hard to become intelligent. He has no additional magical powers, and Martin works very hard to not overcompensate for Tyrion’s stature. In fact, Martin does him one better by giving Tyrion an incredibly ugly scar later in the series. Not only is the poor guy short, and his family hates him, but now he’s also ugly.
It’s obvious from the start of the series where Tyrion’s true power lies. Tyrion first catches many reader’s eyes with his bits of wisdom which seem so out of place with his family and the situations he finds himself in. One of my favorite quotes which helped me through my cancer battle and reminded me to turn my fight into a strength, is Tyrion’s from the start of the series:
“Never forget who you are, for surely the world won’t. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”
But where Tyrion is different from so many other disabled protagonists, and perhaps why he stands out so much to so many genre fans is because he obviously worked hard to hone his intelligence. He isn’t that much smarter than anyone else. In fact, throughout the series he’s pitted against other worthy foes that are just as smart and cunning as he is. With intelligence, Tyrion is playing a game on a special board apart from most other players, but he’s not playing it alone.
Tyrion realized early on that he was disadvantaged due to his stature. He is the butt of horrible jokes from most of the world, as well as his family. He is obviously bitter and angry and he struggles violently with issues of loyalty. In every way he is the perfect, most reasonable, average character with some serious internal battles. What makes him different is how hard he’s worked to be “average” and how he will never seem “average” to anyone due to his size and situation.
Through Tyrion, Martin has proven that authors don’t need to overcompensate for disabilities. Tyrion is your average guy. He just happens to be rich and short. Those two qualities, as well as his inner struggles, will perpetually make him stand out. He’s got razor sharp wit, and works very hard throughout the series to keep a sharp edge on the one weapon he knows he has: his mind. He’s not better than anyone else. He’s not worse. He’s smarter than some, and just as smart as others, with less experience to back that intelligence. He is who he is, and he sticks to readers like glue because of that. He has no special magical powers, and no incredible strength. He sees to the heart of each matter because he’s well read enough to cut through the crap, but the gods did not divine Tyrion with any incredible gifts that he didn’t have to work hard for on his own.
Just like so many of the rest of us.
It’s hard not to read Tyrion Lannister’s story and not see a bit of us in him.
Tyrion Lannister isn’t the only character that is absolutely compelling because of how realistically his disabilities are dealt with. Jaime Lannister doesn’t start to gain any sort of moral compass that he’s willing to act on until he suffers an injury that humbles him quite a bit. Miles Vorkosigan is a character as popular for this topic as Tyrion. He’s also small and works hard at his intelligence, and really sticks with readers because of that.
The thing about intelligence is that it isn’t magical or overly special. Most anyone can be smart if they work hard enough at it. Following the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword, it’s easy to see how smart characters are powerful characters, just powerful in ways that anyone can be powerful. Intelligence juxtaposed with a physical limitation is incredibly moving, because it is so incredibly real. These characters aren’t just fun to read about, they also prove that literature can handle a disabled character in realistic ways. Often, the realistic characters are more compelling than the extraordinary ones.
And that’s why Tyrion Lannister matters. He’s real, and believable. He struggles with a limitation. Through him Martin has proven that not every disability in fantasy needs a magical fix or a superhuman counterpoint. Tyrion is an incredibly powerful person, and one of the most popular modern epic fantasy characters. His limitations, and the realistic ways Martin deals with them proves how hungry the genre is for more characters like him, and just like us.